I started noticing it a few years ago. Men, especially young men, were getting weird.
It might have been the “incels” who first caught my attention, spewing self-pitying venom online, sometimes venturing out to attack the women they believed had done them wrong.
It might have been the complaints from the women around me. “Men are in their flop era,” one lamented, sick of trying to date in a pool that seemed shallower than it should be.
It might have been the new ways companies were trying to reach men. “The average hoodie made these days is weak, flimsy … ” growled a YouTube ad for a “tactical hoodie.” “You’re not a child. You’re a man. So stop wearing so many layers to go outside.”
Once my curiosity was piqued, I could see a bit of curdling in some of the men around me, too.
They struggled to relate to women. They didn’t have enough friends. They lacked long-term goals. Some guys — including ones I once knew — just quietly disappeared, subsumed into video games and porn or sucked into the alt-right and the web of misogynistic communities known as the “manosphere.”
The weirdness manifested in the national political scene, too: in the 4chan-fueled 2016 Trump campaign, in the backlash to #MeToo, in amateur militias during the Black Lives Matter protests. Misogynistic text-thread chatter took physical form in the Proud Boys, some of whom attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Young men everywhere were trying on new identities, many of them ugly, all gesturing toward a desire to belong.
It felt like a widespread identity crisis — as if they didn’t know how to be.
“This is such an ongoing thing,” Taylor Reynolds sighs. “I had this kid show up — well, I say ‘kid,’ but he’s an undergraduate here. I mentor them sometimes. He came over to my house and asked me if we could speak privately.”
Reynolds, 28, is a doctoral student at an Ivy League university. With his full beard, mustache and penchant for tweed sport coats — plus a winsome Southern accent, courtesy of a childhood spent in rural Georgia — he reads as more mature than many of the professors roaming the campus.
“And the first question this kid asked me is just … ‘What the heck does good masculinity look like?’”
“And I’ll be honest with you: I did not have an answer for that.”
Anxieties around masculinity aren’t unique to this moment.
As early as 1835, Washington Irving lamented the new American upper class’s tendency to “send our youth abroad to grow luxurious and effeminate in Europe.” His alternative? “A previous tour on the prairies would be more likely to produce that manliness … most in unison with our political institutions.”
Skip ahead a few decades, and new worries about faltering masculinity turned into an obsession with fitness. An October 1920 issue of Physical Culture magazine advertised to men instructions on “How to Square Your Shoulders” (and to women, some advice: “Shall I Marry Him? A Lesson in Eugenics”).
Still, by 1958, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. warned that “the male role has plainly lost its rugged clarity of outline.” Writing in Esquire magazine, he added, “The ways by which American men affirm their masculinity are uncertain and obscure. There are multiplying signs, indeed, that something has gone badly wrong with the American male’s conception of himself.”
Worrying about the state of our men is an American tradition. But today’s problems are real and well documented. Deindustrialization, automation, free trade and peacetime have shifted the labor market dramatically, and not in men’s favor — the need for physical labor has declined, while soft skills and academic credentials are increasingly rewarded. Growing numbers of working-age men have detached from the labor market, with the biggest drop in employment among men ages 25 to 34. For those in a job, wages have stagnated everywhere except the top.
Meanwhile, women are surging ahead in school and in the workplace, putting a further dent in the “provider” model that has long been ingrained in our conception of masculinity. Men now receive about 74 bachelor’s degrees for every 100 awarded to women, and men account for more than 70 percent of the decline in college enrollment overall. In 2020, nearly half of women reported in a TD Ameritrade survey that they out-earn or make the same amount as their husbands or partners — a huge jump from fewer than 4 percent of women in 1960.
Then there’s the domestic sphere. Last summer, a Psychology Today article caused a stir online by pointing out that “dating opportunities for heterosexual men are diminishing as relationship standards rise.” No longer dependent on marriage as a means to financial security or even motherhood (a growing number of women are choosing to create families by themselves, with the help of reproductive technology), women are “increasingly selective,” leading to a rise in lonely, single young men — more of whom now live with their parents than a romantic partner. Men also account for almost 3 of every 4 “deaths of despair,” either from a suicide, alcohol abuse or an overdose.
And while the past 50 years have been revolutionary for women — the feminist movement championed their power, and an entire academic discipline emerged to theorize about gender and excavate women’s history — there hasn’t been a corresponding conversation about what role men should play in a changing world. At the same time, the increasing visibility of the LGBTQ+ movement has made the gender dynamic seem less stable, less defined.
Because men still dominate leadership positions in government and corporations, many assume they’re doing fine and bristle at male complaint. After all, all 45 U.S. presidents have been male, and men still make up more than two-thirds of Congress. A 2020 analysis of the S&P 500 found that there were more CEOs named Michael or James than there were female CEOs, period. Women are still dealing with historical discrimination and centuries of male domination that haven’t been fully accounted for or rectified. Are we really worrying that men feel a little emasculated because their female classmates are doing well?
But millions of men lack access to that kind of power and success — and, downstream, cut loose from a stable identity as patriarchs deserving of respect, they feel demoralized and adrift. The data show it, but so does the general mood: Men find themselves lonely, depressed, anxious and directionless.
“It’s kind of terrifying that he thought I was the best person to come ask this,” Reynolds went on to tell me about his underclassman visitor. “I’m not even a parent. It seems like there’s been a breakdown, right? But there’s a very real way in which, at this moment, a lot of guys don’t know — they have no sense of what it means to be them, particularly. They have no idea what it means to be a man.”
Past models of masculinity feel unreachable or socially unacceptable; new ones have yet to crystallize. What are men for in the modern world? What do they look like? Where do they fit? These are social questions but also ones with major political ramifications. Whatever self-definition men settle on will have an enormous impact on society. Yet many people, like Taylor, hesitate to be the one to try to outline a new standard of manliness. Who are they to set the rules?
Only one group seems to have no such doubts about offering men a plan.
A manly appeal from the right
In 2018, curious about a YouTube personality who had seemingly become famous overnight, I got tickets to a sold-out lecture in D.C. by Jordan Peterson. It was one of dozens of stops on the Canadian psychology professor turned anti-“woke” juggernaut’s book tour for his surprise bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” The crowd was at least 85 percent male — the remainder seemed to be made up of long-suffering girlfriends, plus moms who had brought their sons in hope that they’d shape up.
Surrounded by men on a Tuesday night, I wondered aloud what the fuss was about. In my opinion, Peterson served up fairly banal advice: “Stand up straight,” “delay gratification.” His evolutionary-biology-informed takes ranged from amusingly weird to mildly insulting. (Female lobsters are irresistibly attracted to the top lobster, as are human women.) His three-piece suits seemed gimmicky.
Suddenly, the 20-something guy in front of me swung around. “Jordan Peterson,” he told me without a hint of irony in his voice, “taught me how to live.”
If there’s a vacuum in modeling manhood today, Peterson has been one of the boldest in stepping up to fill it. He has gained fame, notoriety and millions of book sales in the process. And he’s only one of many right-aligned masculinity gurus — of better and worse quality — who have amassed huge audiences over the past decade.
There are more straightforwardly political options: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) attracted significant notice for a 2021 speech railing against the left’s supposed attacks on traditional masculinity and translated the idea into a book that blames “the tribunes of elite opinion” for the collapse of American manhood and masculine strength. Hawley’s “Manhood” (the jokes do, rather unfortunately, write themselves) went on sale in May.
There are fringier individuals, such as the pseudonymous online figure “Bronze Age Pervert” (BAP for short, real name Costin Alamariu), who became cult-famous for his Twitter feed, a stream of far-right culture-war takes interspersed with homoerotic photos of bodybuilders. BAP’s self-published 2018 manifesto, “Bronze Age Mindset,” teaches readers how to, in the words of its Amazon description, “escape gynocracy and ascend to fresh mountain air” through a mix of Nietzsche, questionable readings of antiquity and a regimen of “sun and steel” (that is, weightlifting and, uh, going outside). A positive review from Trump administration official Michael Anton turned it into assigned reading for young conservative elites.
Some right-wing models tip over into the obviously unsavory. 2022 saw the rise of Andrew Tate, the kickboxer and failed “Big Brother” contestant turned massive social influencer, whose extreme misogyny got him booted from TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He’s a caricature of masculinity — constantly shouting about his sports cars and women (multiple of each, naturally), a cigar surgically attached to his hand. But his advice about how to become an “alpha male” attracted an enormous following of teenage boys, to the point that schools were circulating information about how to counteract his messages in the classroom.
I went to that 2018 Peterson appearance as a skeptic. But his appeal — along with that of his fellow “manfluencers” — has become clearer since.
What’s notable, first, is their empathy. For all Peterson’s barking and, lately, unhinged tweeting, he’s clearly on young men’s side. He validates his followers’ struggles and confusion. He also tells them why they’re still needed and why they matter. No, it’s not just you — school is tailored to girls. Yes, it does suck that a house and a family feel so out of reach! You’re right: It is harder to be a man today.
This is especially compelling in a moment when many young men feel their difficulties are often dismissed out of hand as whining from a patriarchy that they don’t feel part of. For young men in particular, the assumption of a world built to serve their sex doesn’t align with their lived experience, where girls out-achieve them from pre-K to post-graduate studies and “men are trash” is an acceptable joke.
Then there’s the point-by-point advice. If young men are looking for direction, these influencers give them a clear script to follow — hours of video, thousands of book pages, a torrent of social media posts — in a moment when uncertainty abounds. The rules aren’t particularly unique: get fit, pick up a skill, talk to women instead of watching porn all day. But if instruction is lacking elsewhere, even basic tips (“Clean your room!” Peterson famously advises) feel like a revelation. Plus, the community that comes with joining a fandom can feel like a buffer against an increasingly atomized world.
As one therapist told me: “I have used Jordan Peterson to turn a boy into a man. I used him to turn this guy without a strong father figure into someone who, yes, makes his bed and stands up straight and now is successful.” The books, she said, “do provide a structure that was clearly missing.”
It’s also important that the approach of these male models is both particular and aspirational. The BAPs and Hawleys find ways to celebrate aspects of the male experience — from physical strength to competitiveness to sex as a motivator — that other parts of modern society have either derided as “toxic” or attempted to explain aren’t specific to men at all. At their best, these influencers highlight positive traits that were traditionally associated with maleness — protectiveness, leadership, emotional stability — and encourage them, making “masculinity” out to be a real and necessary thing, and its acquisition something honorable and desirable. And the fact that they’re willing to define it outright feels bravely countercultural.
Take BAP’s laughable yet weirdly compelling depiction of the masculine ideal, attractive in part because of its transgressiveness: “Imagine a Mitt Romney, but different … a Romney who was actually capable of acting like he looks.” This Übermensch is a modern-day Alcibiades, as one admiring reviewer of BAP’s “Bronze Age Mindset” puts it: “a piratical man of adventure who attempts to engineer a coup in the United States, sleeps with Vladimir Putin’s wife, and then dies fighting the U.S. empire alongside wild tribesmen in Afghanistan.”
A similar energy infused a documentary called “The End of Men” by (now former) Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, a trailer for which captivated the internet in the spring of 2022. Bathed in soft lighting and accompanied by a military-esque soundtrack, ripped, shirtless figures flipped massive tires, shot guns, wrestled each other and chugged raw eggs. A fully nude man stood on a mountaintop, head tipped back and arms outstretched, his genitals obscured by what looked like a giant USB stick emitting red light.
“Once a society collapses, then you’re in hard times,” a British-inflected voice-over intoned. “Those hard times inevitably produce men who are tough, men who are resourceful, men who are strong enough to survive. They go on to reestablish order, and so the cycle begins again.”
The imagery might be ridiculous, but the message is clear. Even as masculinity comes under attack, real men still exist, and this — blond, chiseled, violent — is what they look like. Despite what “woke” (and, presumably, clothed) society might tell you, male dominance is the natural order of things. Without it, the world will fall apart.
This is where the right-wing vision of masculinity runs off the rails.
Much of the content in the online men’s space is misogyny masquerading as being simply pro-male, advocating a return to a strict hierarchy in which a particular kind of man deserves to rule over everyone else. Decent advice becomes an on-ramp to darker viewpoints: You can get from Tate urging his followers to work hard to his announcing that women are property within seconds.
Meanwhile, politicians such as Hawley are eager to ascribe men’s increasing dysfunction to malice on the part of women, progressives and “elites,” instead of the true cause: major social, economic and cultural changes that in some cases (North American Free Trade Agreement, anyone?) began with conservatives and in others (the Equal Pay Act) were long-overdue moves toward justice. And for all the overheated rhetoric deployed to engage men’s sympathies, what’s mainly on offer is the impossible suggestion that they reenact the lives their grandfathers led, followed by encouragement to blame society when that inevitably fails.
Social identity theory says people inherently protect their identities, and when their identities are maligned in public, the natural response is to stand up for what they see as fundamental to their being. Is your masculinity being challenged? Act even more masculine; defend masculinity more aggressively than ever before; glorify its stereotypes, even the worst ones.
Of course, a masculinity defined solely in opposition to women — or to the gains of feminism, more specifically — doesn’t provide a true road map to the future. Perhaps most alarmingly, many of the visions of masculinity these figures are pushing are wildly antisocial, untethered to any idea of good. Men are urged to situate themselves in a mythic story in which the world was always meant to be under their control. The fact that it no longer is becomes fuel for defensiveness and a victim complex, one that has corrosive and tragic effects.
For all its humor, “Bronze Age Mindset” is unquestionably racist, violent and homophobic. Its definition of masculinity is predicated on nihilism, barbarism and the subjugation of others. And Tate’s proud misogyny and disdain for social norms, it turns out, weren’t just harmless playacting. Last month, he was indicted in Romania on charges of human trafficking, rape and forming an organized criminal group.
A mainstream reluctance to define or speak up for men
Ronan Bray was swigging directly from a half-gallon of apple cider as we sat outside in Gainesville, Fla., last autumn. “It’s seasonal, right?”
A baby-faced, 19-year-old University of Florida freshman with short, white-blond hair, Bray was wearing a hoodie despite the heat. (He grew up in Sarasota, so he was used to it.) He had agreed to talk to me about how he saw uncertainties about masculinity playing out on his campus.
First, he laid out his liberal, Gen Z bona fides — he’s in a fraternity, but many of his close friends are LGBTQ+. He feels that old versions of masculinity might be dissolving for the better. “There’s a lot more of an effort now to broaden the idea of what masculinity really can be,” he said, “and how there can be strength in doing some things that ordinarily would be considered feminine — like talking about your feelings or crying in front of others.”
But then he got candid. He doesn’t really identify with the manosphere, he told me, but can understand why others might. “I feel like there’s a lot of room to be proudly feminine, but there’s not, in my opinion, the same room to be proudly masculine.”
Men were constantly told to be “better” and less “toxic,” he said, but what that “better” might look like seemed hard to pin down. “You pretty much have to figure it out yourself. But yet society still has the expectation that, you know, you have to be a certain way.”
Then he turned wistful. “I don’t feel like men in general have the same types of role models that women do, even in their own personal lives. … Just because you’re in the majority doesn’t mean you don’t need support.”
Technically, men are slightly in the minority in the United States. But apart from that, Bray had a point — and what he said explained a lot about why the left and the mainstream are losing men.
In 2018, the American Psychological Association released its “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” which it described in a news release as declaring that “traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.” The guidelines suggest that “there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence,” and that these standards are damaging to mental and physical health.
Conservatives raged. But progressives mainly shrugged. That’s because the mid-2010s were the high-water mark of anti-male sentiment in progressive spaces. As the #MeToo movement rose, with its tales of horrendous male behavior and ensuing corporate coverups, “ban men” became a rallying cry. The word “masculinity” seemed to rarely appear without the descriptor “toxic” accompanying it, blamed for everything from rape culture to climate change.
Even today, some progressives react touchily to any efforts to help men as a group.
In 2014, President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a $200 million program meant to improve the lives of at-risk boys and men of color. The pushback came immediately: More than 1,000 women signed an open letter criticizing the program for not including girls. More recently, when news circulated in 2022 that President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure act would likely create thousands of jobs for working-class men, MSNBC pundit Joy Reid dismissively called it a “White guy employment act.”
As a result, there’s a temptation to minimize men’s problems or erase references to masculinity altogether. One Democratic strategist told me about how specific references to men in political speeches are often stripped out for fear of offense or to signal broader “inclusivity.” A father staying up late worrying about losing his job, for instance, used as an illustrative example in a speech about health care, is turned into a nonspecific “parent.”
The strategist described his party as having almost an allergy to admitting that some men might, in fact, be struggling in a unique way and could benefit from their own tailored attention and aid.
“But when you strip out the specificity, people feel less seen,” he said. “There’s less of a resonance. If the question is what scripts we have for men, how are we appealing to men, then being willing and able to talk about men is a pretty key component of that.”
What ends up happening is that, if women are still seen as needing tools to overcome disadvantage, men are often expected to just shape up by themselves. For a group that can be focused to a fault on addressing microaggressions, it’s surprisingly acceptable for those on the left to victim-blame men who are struggling themselves. “So we just let men off the hook? Maybe we should give them electroshock therapy for their hysteria,” a progressive female friend of mine joked when I told her about this essay.
To the extent that any vision of “nontoxic” masculinity is proposed, it ends up sounding more like stereotypical femininity than anything else: Guys should learn to be more sensitive, quiet and socially apt, seemingly overnight. It’s the equivalent of “learn to code!” as a solution for those struggling to adjust to a new economy: simultaneously hectoring, dismissive and jejune.
The thing is, I get it. I understand the reluctance to spend time worrying about men. And I say that as someone who loves them: as friends, romantic partners and members of my family.
Justifiably, progressives want to preserve the major gains made for women over the past several decades — gains that are still fragile. It’s easy to mistake attention as zero-sum, to fear that putting effort toward helping men might mean we won’t have space for women anymore.
There is something appealing, too, in the idea of gender neutrality — or at least rejecting gender essentialism — as a social ethos. After all, attaching specific traits to men will redound to women, too. If we say “real” men are strong, does that mean real women must be weak? If men are leaders, are women destined to follow?
I’m convinced that men are in a crisis. And I strongly suspect that ending it will require a positive vision of what masculinity entails that is particular — that is, neither neutral nor interchangeable with femininity. Still, I find myself reluctant to fully articulate one. There’s a reason a lot of the writing on the crisis in masculinity ends at the diagnosis stage.
Take Richard Reeves’s book “Of Boys and Men,” omnipresent in the discourse since its 2022 release. The Brookings Institution scholar has offered wonky potential solutions — “redshirting” boys by delaying kindergarten entry one year, creating scholarships for men in HEAL (health, education, administration and literacy) jobs. But even he acknowledges he has felt pressure to shy away from some of the harder questions his subject matter raises.
Reeves told me that in his writing, he tried to stay descriptive, only going so far as saying there are some differences between the sexes that need to be taken into account to create the most viable solutions. He frames the biological differences between the sexes not as a binary but as overlapping distributions of traits — aggression, risk appetite, sex drive — with clusters of one sex or the other at the extremes.
But when it came to writing any kind of script for how men should be, the self-possessed expert scholar faltered.
“That’s a question I basically dodged in the book,” Reeves told me. “Because, candidly, it’s outside of my comfort zone. It’s more personal. It’s harder to empirically justify. There are no charts I can brandish.” After all, as he said, he’s a think-tank guy, a wonk.
“But I think I’m now trying to articulate more prescriptively, less descriptively, some of these discussions about masculinity and trying to send some messages around it” — here, his speech became emphatic — “because, honestly, nobody else is f—ing doing it except the right.”
Reeves, who is launching his own institute focused on men and boys, knows there’s a danger inherent in seeming too eager to help men or too intent on promoting a particular vision of masculinity.
“As soon as you start articulating virtues, advantages, good things about being male … then you’ve just dialed up the risk factor of the conversation,” he said. “But I’m also acutely aware that the risk of not doing it is much greater. Because without it, there’s a vacuum. And along comes Andrew Tate to make Jordan Peterson look like a cuddly old uncle.”
A new script for men
If the right has overcorrected to an old-fashioned (and somewhat hostile) vision of masculinity, many progressives have ignored the opportunity to sell men on a better vision of what they can be.
In the conversations I had with men for this essay, I kept hearing that many would still find some kind of normative standard of masculinity meaningful and useful, if only to give them a starting point from which to expand.
Scott Galloway agrees. On his podcast and in his newsletter, the author, entrepreneur and professor at New York University’s Stern Business School has made a specialty of talking about the crisis of unattached, rudderless young men and helping them aspire to more. On a Zoom call with me from his home in London, “Prof G,” as he’s known on his eponymous show, reclined, biceps bulging from his fitted shirt as he clasped his hands behind his shaven head. Periodically, he unfolded to push the snout of his large dog out of the frame.
“I mean, there are certain attributes around masculinity that we should embrace. Men think about sex more than women. Use that as motivation to be successful and meet women. Men are more impulsive. Men will run out into a field and get shot up to think they’re saving their buddies.”
He was careful to point out that he doesn’t believe that women wouldn’t do as much but that the distributions are different.
“Where I think this conversation has come off the tracks is where being a man is essentially trying to ignore all masculinity and act more like a woman. And even some women who say that — they don’t want to have sex with those guys. They may believe they’re right, and think it’s a good narrative, but they don’t want to partner with them.”
I, a heterosexual woman, cringed in recognition.
“And so men should think, ‘I want to take advantage of my maleness. I want to be aggressive, I want to set goals, go hard at it. I want to be physically really strong. I want to take care of myself.’”
Galloway leaned into the screen. “My view is that, for masculinity, a decent place to start is garnering the skills and strength that you can advocate for and protect others with. If you’re really strong and smart, you will garner enough power, influence, kindness to begin protecting others. That is it. Full stop. Real men protect other people.”
Richard Reeves, in our earlier conversation, had put it somewhat more subtly. “I try to raise my boys” — he has three — “to have the confidence to ask a girl out, if that’s their inclination; the grace to accept no for an answer; and the responsibility to make sure that, either way, she gets home safely.” His recipe for masculine success echoed Galloway’s: proactiveness, agency, risk-taking and courage, but with a pro-social cast.
This tracked with my intuitions about what “good masculinity” might look like — the sort that I actually admire, the sort that women I know find attractive but often can’t seem to find at all. It also aligns with what the many young men I spoke with would describe as aspirational, once they finally felt safe enough to admit they did in fact carry an ideal of manhood with its own particular features.
Physical strength came up frequently, as did a desire for personal mastery. They cited adventurousness, leadership, problem-solving, dignity and sexual drive. None of these are negative traits, but many men I spoke with felt that these archetypes were unfairly stigmatized: Men were too assertive, too boisterous, too horny.
But, in fact, most of these features are scaffolded by biology — all are associated with testosterone, the male sex hormone. It’s not an excuse for “boys will be boys”-style bad behavior, but, realistically, these traits would be better acknowledged and harnessed for pro-social aims than stifled or downplayed. Ignoring obvious truths about human nature, even general ones, fosters the idea that progressives are out of touch with reality.
The essentialist view — that it’s in men’s nature to be brave, stoic and in charge while women remain docile, nurturing and submissive — would be dire news for social equality and for the vast numbers of individuals who don’t fit those stereotypes. Biology isn’t destiny — there is no one script for how to be a woman or a man. But despite a push by some advocates to make everything from bathrooms to birthing gender-neutral, most people don’t actually want a completely androgynous society. And if a new model for masculinity is going to find popular appeal, it will depend on putting the distinctiveness of men to good use in whatever form it comes in.
“Femininity or masculinity are a social construct that we get to define,” Galloway concluded. “They are, loosely speaking, behaviors we associate with people born as men or born as women, or attributes more common among people born as men or as women. But the key is that we still get to fill that vessel and define what those attributes are, and then try and reinforce them with our behavior and our views and our media.”
What would creating a positive vision of masculinity look like? Recognizing distinctiveness but not pathologizing it. Finding new ways to valorize it and tell a story that is appealing to young men and socially beneficial, rather than ceding ground to those who would warp a perceived difference into something ugly and destructive.
A bit more than 20 years ago, anthropologist David D. Gilmore published “Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity,” a cross-cultural study of manliness around the world. He found that almost all societies had a concept of “real,” “true” or “adult” manhood that was seen as a valuable and indispensable ideal. But masculinity had to be earned — and proved.
Men achieved it by providing for their families and broader society, by protecting their tribe and others, and by successfully procreating. In the modern moment, however, all three of these goals seem less celebrated and further from reach. Young men who disappear into online forums, video games or pornography see none of the social or personal rewards of meeting these goals, and their loneliness and despair suggest how painful it has been to lose track of this ideal.
The other feature of Gilmore’s findings was that boys generally had to be ushered into manhood and masculinity by other men. And that seems to be a key link missing today.
“When I talk to my friends, I can literally count on one hand the number of friends I have who have a good relationship with their dad and actually have learned things from him,” said Reynolds, the Ivy League grad student, mulling the reasons students were turning to him for advice. “Part of the thing is that that’s just an ongoing societal problem.”
Many of the young men I talked to for this essay told me they had troubled relationships with their fathers, or no father figure in their lives at all. The data bears this out: Since 1960, the percentage of boys living apart from their biological fathers has nearly doubled, from 17 percent to 32 percent.
As Reeves told me: “If you’re growing up in a single-parent household, and you go to a typical public school and typical medical system, there’s a decent chance that you will not encounter a male figure of authority until middle school or later. Not your doctor, not your teachers. No one else around you. What does that feel like?”
And while progressives have embraced the rise of single-parent and female-led homes — or at least assume them to be inevitable as a new status quo — it’s still clear that male role models help boys especially to thrive.
In 2018, Harvard economist Raj Chetty published a groundbreaking study on race and economic opportunity. Among the findings was that persistent income inequality between Black and White people was disproportionately driven by poor outcomes among Black boys. However, those boys who grew up in neighborhoods where there were more fathers present — even if not their own — had significantly higher chances of upward mobility.
“Ultimately,” Reynolds mused, “it’s about relationships and finding older men who, you know — they’re not flashy, they’re not ‘important,’ necessarily, but they actually are living virtuous lives as men. And then being able to then learn from them.”
This cultural shift is one reason why the crisis of masculinity might take time to fix: because fostering positive representations of manhood requires relationships and mentorship on an individual level, in a way that can’t be mandated. Even aspirational public representations of men are scarce on the ground. Political figures who in the past might have been obvious models — Barack Obama, say, or Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — are, in our moment, polarizing. Fathers in popular culture are still often stereotyped as ineffective or idiots. New archetypes are forming — the “soft daddies” of cartoons such as “Big Mouth” and “Bob’s Burgers,” any role actor Nick Offerman takes on — but they’re still rarities. And the everyday men most secure in their masculinity usually aren’t the ones pronouncing it in the public square.
Some policy interventions can increase the number of role models within communities, according to experts. Programs such as the Boys2Men Community Foundation in Chicago offer one-on-one mentorship. And nearly every thinker on the masculinity problem advocates getting more men into classrooms, from kindergarten up — not just for their effects as teachers but also because they’re more likely to serve as coaches, especially of boys’ sports.
But as Galloway put it, the change will need to come from the bottom up — from everyday men who notice the crisis of identity hitting their younger counterparts and can put themselves forward to help. “Ninety percent of this, if not 95, is on us, is on older men, is on society,” Galloway said. “To realize this is a problem that warrants investment and attention. And it’s on young men themselves to take responsibility and embrace masculinity and redefine it.”
A path forward
For all their problems, the strict gender roles of the past did give boys a script for how to be a man. But if trying to smash the patriarchy has left a vacuum in our ideal of masculinity, it also gives us a chance at a fresh start: an opportunity to take what is useful from models of the past and repurpose it for boys and men today.
We can find ways to work with the distinctive traits and powerful stories that already exist — risk-taking, strength, self-mastery, protecting, providing, procreating. We can recognize how real and important they are. And we can attempt to make them pro-social — to help not just men but also women, and to support the common good.
Influencers on the right have found an audience by recognizing and exaggerating these tropes. What else is an incel but a stymied procreator building an identity out of his failures? Who are Tucker Carlson’s tire-flipping civilizational guards but the protector, made absurd? Right-wing political figures such as Josh Hawley have clearly latched on to many men’s desire to provide, but their solutions are often 1950s throwbacks that depend on castigating women for providing for themselves.
What critics miss is that if there were nothing valid at the core of these constructs, they wouldn’t command this sort of popularity. People need codes for how to be human. And when those aren’t easily found, they’ll take whatever is offered, no matter what else is attached.
For the left, there’s room to elaborate on visions of these qualities that are expansive, not reductive, that allow for many varieties of masculinity and don’t deny female value and agency.
In my ideal, the mainstream could embrace a model that acknowledges male particularity and difference but doesn’t denigrate women to do so. It’s a vision of gender that’s not androgynous but still equal, and relies on character, not just biology. And it acknowledges that certain themes — protector, provider, even procreator — still resonate with many men and should be worked with, not against.
But how to implement it? Frankly, it will be slow. A new masculinity will be a norm shift, and that takes time. The women’s movement succeeded in changing structures and aspirations, but the social transformation didn’t take place overnight. And empathy will be required, as grating as that might feel.
It is harder to be a man today, and in many ways, that is a good thing: Finally, the freer sex is being held to a higher standard.
Even so, not all of the changes that have led us to this moment are unequivocally positive. And if left unaddressed, the current confusion of men and boys will have destructive social outcomes, in the form of resentment and radicalization.
In the end, the sexes rise and fall together. The truth is that most women still want to have intimate relationships with good men. And even those who don’t still want their sons, brothers, fathers and friends to live good lives.
The old script for masculinity might be on its way out. It’s time we replaced it with something better.